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Even by comic book standards, Ben Reilly has lived one of the most complicated and difficult lives that any fictional clone ever has. Introduced as a mentally unstable Spider-Man clone The Amazing Spider-Man #149, Ben truly believed himself to be the true Peter Parker before being forced to confront the truth.
After learning that he, too, was a clone, Ben spent a number of years trying to find his place in the world, struggling to maintain odd jobs here and there while also occasionally battling with other echoes of Spider-Man's past like Kaine, another Parker-clone.
Unlike most of Spider-Man's rogues gallery, Ben fought in earnest to put distance between himself and the webhead, hoping to carve out a destiny of his own that wasn't tied to his biological origins. As is always the case, though, Ben's attempts at living his life for himself have largely been unsuccessful.
Just when it seems like things are moving towards a sense of "normal," Ben's life becomes even more turned upside down and inside out than it was before.
Add to that the fact that Ben's idea of "normal" exists somewhere between a catastrophic mental breakdown and fighting for survival and it shouldn't come as a surprise that Ben Reilly: Scarlet Spider #7 written by Peter David and illustrated by Mark Bagley gets into some truly weird, mind-boggling territory.
While Peter Parker's been off spending quality time with Miles Morales, Ben Reilly's spent a large chunk of his recent past being repeatedly resurrected and killed through cloning at the hands of the first Jackal, Miles Warren.
Warren's special cloning technology made it so that Ben remembered each of the 26 previous deaths he'd experienced. After breaking free of the Jackal's experimentation, Ben managed to manipulate his way into controlling the Jackal's clone tech company and assuming the Jackal's identity.
Ultimately, Ben's scheme to use the Jackal's resources to do good in the world backfires on him, leaving him with deep physical and emotional scars and in need to reinvent himself. In the most recent issues of Ben Reilly: Scarlet Spider, Ben's been swinging through Las Vegas searching for a way to resurrect Abigail Mercury, the dead daughter of Cassandra Mercury, a powerful casino owner.
Abigail, Ben learns, was a clone that the Jackal's company created and now her body is beginning to break down on a molecular level due to an error on Ben's part. Mercury threatens to kill Ben if he doesn't find a cure for her daughter, which Ben is more than willing to do in the moments that he's not also being doggedly hunted by his evil clone Kaine who's on a mission to kill him.
Ben's struggle to honour his word to Mercury while also battling Kaine culminated in a shocking ending recently when Abigail suddenly died after being given Ben's would-be cure. Kaine, enraged by Abigail's death, set out to kill Ben once and for all, but was inexplicably stopped in his tracks and killed by Marlo Chandler, the classic Incredible Hulk character and Rick Jones' wife.
This week's Ben Reilly: Scarlet Spider #7 picks up immediately after Marlo's killed Kaine and Abigail Mercury has died. As Ben frantically tries to perform cpr on Kaine, who he considers his brother, Marlo calmly informs him that he's wasting his time. Kaine's not coming back.
Distraught, Ben demands to know what the hell Marlo's done and, in a flurry of fast-paced exposition that could easily have been drawn out over multiple issues, Marlo flat-out tells Ben that she's an avatar of Death.
As in the abstract embodiment of Death who oversees the death of all things and gets a kick out of ignoring Thanos' text messages. Ben, who is a clone that has been super-scientifically resurrected from the dead dozens of times, refuses to believe what Marlo is saying and so she reveals part of her true form to him.
This is how you make an entrance.
Marlo explains that while she is, in fact, death, Marlo Chandler the human still exists. Whenever Death has a specific reason that it needs to take care of important business on earth, Marlo's is the body that it inhabits. (One imagines that Marlo, Death, Jean, and the Phoenix might have interesting conversations over brunch.)
The important business that Death needs to tend to, she explains to Ben, is him. Ben, in his signature warped riff on Peter Parker's charming quips, interrupts Death and jokingly asks her if she's come to him looking for a new boyfriend.
When Death asks what she, a cosmic entity, could want with a mortal waste of time like a boyfriend, Ben points out that there are rumours about Death and Thanos and everybody knows about Death's fondness for Deadpool.
In bracingly candid fashion, Death herself speaks her mind about Thanos' infatuation with her and she's basically not really here for it. Though she appreciates the billions of souls that Thanos has offered her over the millennia, Death explains, whatever sense of "love" Thanos feels is actually just his desire to acquire Death as a conquest.
Basically, Death sees Thanos as a thirsty stan who she'd rather keep at a healthy distance while still gladly accepting the gifts that he gives her.
As interesting as that all is, Death gets back to business and explains that she's been tracking Ben because of the unique position that his soul is in. Every single time the Jackal resurrected and killed Ben during his experiments, each clone experienced the entirety of both Ben and Peter Parker's lives in the moments before they died.
The intense spiritual trauma of living so many traumatic lifetimes over and over again in such quick succession, Death says, has led to the essence of his soul being fractured and broken apart.
Should Ben die again, Death tells him, his soul could shatter in such a way that even she could not repair. According to Death, the only way to save his soul from eternal corruption is ... to not die for a while and give his soul time to heal itself. Ben contemplates what Death and told and shown him and comes to accept words as truth, but he also tells her that he doesn't plan on giving up his life as a superhero any time soon.
Death understands that Ben feels a natural calling to hero work, but warns him of the special danger that it puts him in.
Just as Death is preparing to leave him, Ben makes a request of her: if Death truly believes in Ben's fate to save people, but also has a vested interest in making sure that Ben's soul isn't destroyed, then Death should consider bringing both Kaine and Abigail Mercury back to life.
Death is taken aback by Ben's boldness, but agrees to bring one of them back, another option that Ben refuses to accept. Rather than letting either of them die, Ben offers himself in exchange for both of them and Death...rolls her eyes and says no.
There are only a handful of characters who have ever seen Death up close, let alone gotten into a shouting and punching match with her. Ben Reilly is one of those characters. Death easily could have just ended Ben's life and gone about her business, but something about getting into a fistfight with the Peter Parker knockoff inspires her to bring Abby and Kaine back in addition to healing the scar tissue on Ben's face.
The arc closes out with all of Ben Reilly: Scarlet Spider's playing coming into new outlooks on life after having dealt with personal crises that put their lives in direct danger.
In a time where major comics events like Secret Empire or DC's Dark Nights: Metal can take dozens of issues and tie-in stories to create a sense of scale and grandeur, Ben Reilly: Scarlet Spider pulls it off with a small, tightly-woven web of characters with just enough of the cosmic to make the story feel magical.
Ben Reilly: Scarlet Spider may not be one of Marvel's flagship books, but the way that the series is giving its characters deep, intimate stories that still feel big is something that would be great to see in more flagship titles.